Spotlight Exclusives

Libraries look to social workers to meet new patron needs

Beth Wahler Beth Wahler, posted on

The trend of libraries becoming much more than a place to check out books has been growing for years and has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Library workers increasingly find themselves faced with patrons in crisis, who need services and answers that they aren’t equipped to provide. One solution is for libraries to bring in social workers to fill the gaps and Beth Wahler, director of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, works with public libraries across the country to understand their needs and explore the ways social workers might help. Wahler spoke recently with Spotlight about the new trend; the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So, give us an overview of this new trend of libraries providing more social services?

Public libraries have been seeing a shift in the demographics of their patrons over the past couple of decades. They currently have a lot more patrons who have poverty related needs, mental health issues, and substance abuse problems who are coming to their local library for connection to resources and for information. Libraries are finding that their staff aren’t necessarily trained to adequately address some of these issues. Some patrons have multiple needs, and often really complicated needs. Library staff in many areas, especially urban areas, are feeling really overwhelmed due to the high needs of their patrons. Urban libraries are also faced with a high number of patrons experiencing homelessness. So, there’s been a growing movement over the past decade or so to add some sort of social work program or intervention in a public library. San Francisco’s public library was the first to add a social service component. It then expanded to a couple other urban areas over several years and then in the last year or two, has really taken off and exploded as more libraries are finding out about these kinds of programs and wanting to add them themselves.

And how does your work tie in with this trend?

I’m a social work professor and administrator. I started working with a library quite a few years ago that was interested in adding a social work student to address their patrons’ needs. They didn’t have the budget to hire a social worker, but they wanted to have a social work practicum student doing an internship for their library. I started talking with them about the issues they were faced with and did a needs assessment with them where we really established the need for ongoing social services. We piloted a social work practicum unit with two students there and gathered data about what kinds of patron needs those students were addressing. Then that library was able to use that information to justify to their board being able to hire a full-time social worker, which they have recently done. And since then, I’ve started to work with other libraries across the country who wanted help with the same issue.


Where, where was that first library Beth?

It was in Indianapolis. I worked for Indiana University at that time, where I worked until I moved to Charlotte last summer to take the social work director position at UNC Charlotte. Most of my work is focused on assessing need—helping libraries understand their staff needs and their patron needs, and then piloting different types of social work interventions to meet those needs. Sometimes it’s been social work students, sometimes it’s been partnerships with other organizations in the community, and then sometimes they’ve been ready to hire a full-time social worker.

And do you have a sense at all of what percentage of libraries have some assistance like this at this point?

I don’t know the number off the top of my head. There’s actually a website that is called Whole Person Librarianship and they have a map of all the known social library collaborations. They include things like libraries that have practicum students, libraries that have social workers on staff, libraries that are contracting with somebody in the community to offer social work services. But even that map has had trouble keeping up as it depends on libraries to self-report. But it at least gives you a general idea.

And what has your research found is the greatest need libraries have? Does it tend to be mental health services?

So, if you ask staff and patrons, they say different things. For staff, usually what they’re wanting the most help with is patron mental health needs. They sometimes feel like they are just not trained to address those kinds of needs. And sometimes patrons are coming in and are in crisis or are having a serious mental health issue in the library. So, staff tend to list that as their number one concern. Other needs that come up are homelessness in urban areas, poverty-related needs, and substance abuse. If you ask patrons, it’s different. For patrons, the greatest area of need is usually centered around poverty-related needs—assistance finding a job, applying for jobs, applying for public benefits like SNAP, help getting linked to resources in the community. Another top area of concern for patrons is social isolation, just coming to the library because they need to connect with somebody.

And is your advice to libraries to train someone specifically in one of those areas or more have librarians have a smattering of experience in a range of topics?

One of the good things about social work and why those partnerships make sense is because social workers and social work students are trained to address what we call the micro to macro continuum of needs. The micro focus is what an individual needs, such as assessing or addressing mental health, handling a substance use-related crisis, etc. The macro side of things is developing community collaborations, trying to affect the community as a whole, doing advocacy around a certain issue, identifying some sort of gap that exists in services in a community and then working to address that gap. Social workers and social work students make sense for libraries because they can address all of the things that are needs with patrons, from the more clinically focused needs like mental health to those poverty-related needs, and can also address the community from the macro perspective. I’d love to see libraries everywhere be able to have a social worker or a social work student helping meet the needs, but that’s not realistic in a lot of places. But it tends to not work very well if the library is trying to just train one person to address one component because once they open up the door for one thing, patrons will start coming with other issues and other needs. It helps to have somebody there that can address a wide variety of needs, like a social worker or social work student.

And is this beginning to change the way that librarians are being trained at all?

Yes, there’s actually a slow growth in programs that are offering some joint library and information science and social work courses. There’s one program I can think of that recently started offering a joint degree in library and information science and social work. There are also more and more social service-related training opportunities popping up for people in the field of library and information science.

And I assume the pandemic has only hastened this trend?

Yes. Even when libraries were physically shut down because of the pandemic, they still were trying to find ways to meet patron needs. Libraries are really innovative organizations that are constantly trying to make sure they’re addressing their community needs. A lot of libraries are offering (COVID) tests and have done a wonderful job of offering WIFI. There are so many people that depend on their public library for computer access or internet access. More patrons are coming in with mental health and poverty-related needs since the pandemic began, so the pandemic definitely has brought about an increase in libraries attempting to add a social service component.

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